Scaling for Impact

Hello, there.

Still me, somewhat obsessed with scaling and nonprofit impact.

There are two new resources I want to share about scaling: a piece from the Social Impact Exchange about how collaborations can scale impact, and the video and proceedings from the annual conference on scale (see, it’s not just me–there’s a whole scale conference!).

But, first, some reflections on why I think scale is so important.

Often, when I’m sitting around a conference room talking with nonprofit leaders (usually, the CEO/Executive Director, the Vice-Presidents or equivalent, and maybe some program director-types), the conversation quickly turns to how tired they are and how overworked and how stressed.

There’s a lot of gallows humor like that, among social workers, and some of it, I know, is the product of unhealthy organizational cultures and attitudes that equate ‘busy’ with ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ or ‘noble’.

The quotation marks hopefully convey my skepticism about that calculus.

But a lot of it is real.

There are many nonprofit employees who make tremendous sacrifices, rarely seeing their own families, neglecting their health, giving up friendships and hobbies, because they care so deeply about the people they’re serving and the organizations they’re running.

I respect them and appreciate them and value them. I try to support them.

But I also think we have to be honest about the perennial elephant in the room:

We’re doing all of this for relatively little impact.

That’s not at all to say that our efforts don’t matter. That’s not the kind of impact I’m talking about.

Of course, every child whose life is improved from child abuse prevention services, every adult with a mental illness who gains a new measure of health, every person who finds a good job, every light bulb that goes off in the mind of a struggling youth, every policy win advanced by a health advocate, every program developed to fight homelessness…

it all matters.

But, measured against the scale of the problems against which we are arrayed, the size of our impact can often pale.

And that’s not an imbalance that can be corrected by working harder–or even smarter–within our organizations. If it was, we would already have done it, right?

No, what we need are new structures, scaled to be capable of delivering the impact that the urgency of our problems demands.

We need collective commitment to well-defined problems. We need data that can point us in the right direction. We need collaborations across sectors to get us out of our silos.

We need scale.

It won’t make us get home in time for every after-school activity. It might not make us fit in our 30 minutes of exercise every day. It certainly won’t take away the stresses that come from navigating the messy realities of human lives.

But it can make all of those efforts echo more loudly, and stretch further, and last longer.

And that matters, I think.

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